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Federal magistrate judge

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A federal magistrate judge is a federal judge who serves in a United States district court. Magistrate judges are assigned duties by the district judges in the district in which they serve.

Magistrate judges may preside over most phases of federal proceedings, except for criminal felony trials. The specific duties of a magistrate judge vary from district to district, but the responsibilities always include handling matters that would otherwise be on the dockets of the district judges.[1]

Full-time magistrate judges serve for renewable terms of eight years. Some federal district courts have part-time magistrate judges, who serve for renewable terms of four years.

In 2008, the federal magistrate judges across the country handled approximately 11,000 civil cases to conclusion with the consent of the parties, according to the Federal Magistrate Judges Association.[2]

Training and administration

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts is responsible for the supervision of administrative matters regarding federal magistrate judges. The Federal Judicial Center is responsible for creating and implementing training programs for federal magistrate judges.[2]

Position created

The U.S. Congress established the role of federal magistrate judges in 1968 with the Federal Magistrates Act of 1968 (82 Stat. 1107). The position replaced the role of federal court commissioner with the broader and more powerful office of United States Magistate. Magistrate judges are empowered to dispose of a greater range of minor matters than had been the case with the previous position of commissioner.[1] The office of federal magistrate judge became fully operational in 1971 after a trial period in five district courts. When the position was first established, the official title was "Magistrate". On December 1, 1990 an Act of Congress changed the title to "Magistrate Judge".[1]

Specific roles intended for magistrate judges are:

  • To preside over criminal arraignments.
  • The authority to conduct misdemeanor trials, if the defendant agreed.
  • To serve as special masters in civil actions.
  • Where requested by district judges, to preside over discovery and other pre-trial proceedings.

Requirements for service

In order to be appointed as a magistrate judge, a potential nominee must be a member of the bar of the highest court of the state where he or she serves.


In 1974, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that magistrates cannot conduct evidentiary hearings in habeas corpus actions.[2]

In 1976, the U.S. Congress responded to this limitation with 90 Stat. 2729 which gave further definition to the 1968 act and specifically granted magistrates the authority to conduct habeas proceedings.

Act of 1979

In the Federal Magistrates Act of 1979 (93 Stat. 643), the U.S. Congress expanded the authority of the magistrate judges by:

  • Granting consent jurisdiction to magistrate judges. This authorizes them to conduct civil trials as long as the parties to the trial consent.
  • Magistrate judges were also allowed to preside over misdemeanor trials as long as the defendant in the case waives his or her right to a trial before a district judge.
  • Providing for merit selection panels to assist district judges in the appointment of magistrate judges.

Act of 1990

The Judicial Improvements Act of 1990 (104 Stat. 5089) changed the title of the office from "magistrate" to "magistrate judge".

How many?

The number of magistrate judgeships is determined by the Judicial Conference of the United States.

As of 2013, there were 551 magistrate judgeships authorized. Three additional positions that combine the role of magistrate judge with the role of clerk of court are also authorized.[3]

See also

External links